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How To Marinate And Make Better Food

Throw a bunch of things in a plastic bag, put in raw meat, go to work (or sleep), and when you come back, best friends.

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Don't worry too much if you don't have the exact ingredients in a recipe — just follow this basic formula.

ACID (but not too much)

eg: vinegar, lemon/lime/orange juice, wine, buttermilk, or yogurt

why: tenderize protein to let the other flavor-enhancing ingredients get in there



or soy sauce

why: also tenderizes



eg, olive oil, canola oil

why: helps release the flavor of spices or herbs and hold them in contact with the meat.



eg, garlic, rosemary, ginger, chiles, maple syrup

why: adds flavor



Certain pairings are natural and if you think about it you probably know what they are because you eat food sometimes (lamb with rosemary; chicken with yogurt; pork with honey; shrimp with ginger). A good approach is to stick with ingredients that are common in the same cuisine. Here are some examples of that:


rice-wine vinegar, soy sauce, mirin (sweet wine), ginger, coconut milk, lime juice, lemongrass, sugar, cilantro, garlic


red and white vinegar, red and white wine, beer, lemon juice, garlic, basil, parsley, tarragon, oregano, mint, chives, dill, thyme, rosemary, mustard, sugar/honey


Bourbon, Tabasco sauce, buttermilk, Worcestershire, sugar/honey/maple syrup


yogurt, cumin, turmeric, coriander, curry powder, cilantro, mint, garlic


chiles, cumin, oregano, lime juice

Watch out for sugar.

Sugary ingredients in a marinade — like maple syrup, honey, brown sugar/white sugar, sweet wines — can cause your food to char when you cook them. So take note when a marinade has sugar in it and either use lower the heat or move the food around more as you're cooking it.

Dont poke holes in the meat.

This is a debate. The esteemed experts at Cook's Illustrated say you should. BuzzFeed Food editors believe poking holes in your meat is silly and will cause the natural juices to seep out when the meat is cooked, leaving it dry and abused.

A longer marinade isn't always better — but it usually is.

There are several factors to take into account with marinade time: type of meat, size of meat chunks, and acidity of the marinade. For dark proteins — beef, lamb, pork — longer is always better. BUT, if the food is delicate — shrimp, flaky fish — stop marinating after 15 or 30 minutes or the acid will start to break down the protein too much. Chicken is somewhere in the middle, anywhere from 2 to 12 hours is good depending on the cut (skin-on breasts require less time, for example).

Some proteins need a marinade's added flavor more than others.

Oh hey boneless skinless chicken breasts, you look SO GROSS. You and other protein that is tough, dry, naturally flavorless, or cheap will be especially improved by a marinade. (So in addition to chicken breast, think hanger steaks, pork chops, etc.)

Marinades can be sauces, too.

You can set aside some of your marinade before it comes into contact with any raw meat to use it later is a sauce. You can also use the marinade after it's bathed the raw meat, but you have to boil the marinade first to get rid of any bacteria. Otherwise, just throw the marinade away. Don't try to reuse it to marinate other meat.

Now you are a master so you don't really need to follow a recipe — but just in case, here are some good ones.

Underneath each photo you'll see the marinade ingredients and time so you can see the patterns.

Coffee-Marinated Bison Short Ribs

MARINADE: water + chilled strong brewed coffee + kosher salt + dark brown sugar + maple syrup + fresh rosemary + Worcestershire sauce + 4-6 hours

(these are actually bison short ribs, not beef, but the marinade would work nicely with either)

Get the recipe